Two local men lost their lives on active service on 23rd December 1917 – Sergeant Walter Henry Mitchell, 111th Company, Machine Gun Corps, and Able Seaman John Henry Williams, Royal Naval Reserve, serving on HMS Surprise.
Walter Henry Mitchell was born in Solihull in 1886 and was the fourth of the five children (two daughters, three sons) of parents John Henry Mitchell (agricultural labourer) and Sarah Ann Gardner, who had married at Solihull in 1880. Their youngest child, daughter Ada, was born and died in 1889.
The couple appear to have set up home in Blossomfield, and are recorded as living at Shirley Road, [later known as Blossomfield Road], Solihull in 1891. Sarah died in 1893, aged 38, and, in 1895, John married Ellen Olerenshaw in the King’s Norton district. By 1896, John and Ellen had moved to Madeley, Shropshire where their only child, John Harold Mitchell was born in 1896. It seems that he was killed in August 1918, serving as a Private with the 8th Service Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment.
In 1901, Walter was with his father and step-mother in Madeley, and was recorded on the census, aged 14, as a grocer’s errand boy. He must have joined the army soon after the outbreak of war, as he first entered a theatre of war on 20th December 1914. Soldiers Died in the Great War gives his residence on enlistment as Madeley and notes that he enlisted in Shrewsbury. He was a Lance Corporal in the Shropshire Light Infantry before being transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. He married Ellen Louisa Rogers in Lichfield in 1915.
It seems likely that his parents returned to Solihull during the war period, as his father died in Solihull in 1919. Walter died of wounds on 23rd December 1917 and is buried at Mont Huon Military Cemetery, Le Treport. He is commemorated locally on the war memorial at Marston Green, which seems to be connected with the fact that members of his family worked at the Isolation Hospital at Catherine-de-Barnes, recorded as “Marston Green, Birmingham” in some records. His brother, Ernest Herbert (born 1884) is recorded on the 1911 census as living at The Lodge, at the Isolation Hospital, whilst Commonwealth War Graves records list Walter as the stepson of Ellen Mitchell, of the Isolation Hospital.
Walter’s widow, Ellen, married Arthur Russell in 1919, and they went on to have nine children, including a son, Walter, born in 1923.
John Henry Williams was born on 24th August 1898 and was the eldest of the six children (four sons, two daughters) of parents, Albert Henry (superintendent at the Midland Counties Idiot Asylum, Knowle) and Rose Hannah (née Jones) who had married at Budbrooke, Warwickshire in 1897, when 27-year-old Albert was listed as a clerk.
It seems that John Henry, or Jack, as he was apparently known, and his younger brother Sydney Frederick (1899-1969) both attended Solihull School. The family lived at The Ferns, Knowle Wood Road, Dorridge at the time of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, although they had left by 1937 when the house was advertised for sale in 1937, at which time it was being rented by a Mr Newill.
Jack Williams, a metal spinner by trade, joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 9th June 1916 for the duration of hostilities. He was just under 18 and, after training, joined HMS Surprise on 18th January 1917. Surprise was a newly-built destroyer, launched in November 1916 and completed in January 1917. She was assigned to Harwich Force and, on 22nd December 1917 was part of a routine convoy escorting ships to the Netherlands. At about 2am the following morning Surprise was was struck by a German mine as she was attempting to assist another of the mined ships. She sank, losing 48 of her crew and leaving only seven survivors.
Able Seaman John Henry Williams is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and he is also commemorated locally on Solihull School war memorial, and in the Soldiers’ Chapel and Downing Hall, Knowle.
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